Mansfield Park

Mansfield ParkMansfield Park seems to be the Jane Austen novel that people don’t like much, and its heroine, Fanny Price, the heroine people don’t care much about (if they don’t actively dislike her). I have never considered it a favorite (that would be Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion), but I also remember that I did like it (and Fanny Price) when I read it. But that was almost 20 years ago. Maybe I feel differently now. I remember so little about the book that I knew I’d need a reread to know for sure, so when Jenny decided to have a Mansfield Park readalong this May, I decided to join in. 

And I still liked it. And I liked Fanny.

A lot of people talk about how Fanny is so meek and such a doormat and also kind of a prig. While the latter might be true, she’s really not a doormat. She doesn’t speak up for herself when her aunt, Mrs. Norris, or her cousins, Maria and Julia Bertram, treat her badly, but given that she’s a poor relation who’s been put down by these people since she was a child, I’d hardly expect her to. What’s fascinating is that when it comes to violating her principles, she does speak up. And, ok, one of her principles is that it’s very very wrong to put on a play, but it is her belief, and she stands by it. (And it’s a belief shared by two of the only people in her daily life who treat her kindly, so, again, I can’t be too mad at her about it.) She also stands up for herself when it comes to the choice of who to marry, even when everyone seems sure that she’s wrong to turn down a man above her station. Is she wrong? That’s unclear. But what is clear is that her reasons make sense.

The thing about Mansfield Park is that the human emotions and motivations depicted in it are so often murky. When Edmund decides to go against his principles and perform in the play, he comes up with some sound logic about avoiding scandal by keeping it in the family, but he surely feels some pleasure, even if unconscious, at the idea of performing opposite Mary Crawford. And I think Mary herself is genuinely torn about Edmund a lot of the time. She’s not leading him on if she’s unsure, if she likes him but feels unsuited to being a clergyman’s wife. She’s trying to make up her mind! And maybe money is part of her concern, but given how she’s been pulled from one place to another, I can hardly blame her for wanting a life that feels secure, and money means security.

The Crawfords are, I think, two of Austen’s more complicated characters because their motivations are so murky, even to themselves. Henry falls in love in spite of himself and seems genuinely to be making a go at being a better man as a result. But there’s plenty of reason to think such a reform won’t last. In the end, it’s not clear whether his true nature has come through or if he just despaired of happiness and gave up trying. Perhaps there’s a little of both involved. 

And that ambiguity may be what makes this a more difficult Austen novel to love. I know I see Austen books (and films, if I’m being honest) as comfort reads. Books full of drama and comedy that arises from ordinary human foibles but where everything turns out ok in the end. The bones of Mansfield Park feel exactly like that, except that that the ending is not entirely sunny, despite what looks to be a happy ending for everyone who “matters.”

I have no idea how Austen herself really felt about the Crawfords. Perhaps she saw their flirtations and changeability as genuinely scandalous. But they both show real kindness at times, and so I have a hard time writing them off as deserving of ejection from society. And so I’m left a little sad at the close of the book. But I’m also left with a little more to chew on than in some of Austen’s other books, and that is its own kind of pleasure.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 1 Comment

Missing, Presumed

I do love a really good, meaty crime novel, but there’s so much crime fiction that just doesn’t work for me. I think I want it all to have the perverse darkness of Ruth Rendell or Tana French or the delightful rompiness of Laurie King or the social conscience of Attica Locke. And so little measures up to those standards. Alas.

I had high hopes for this novel by Susie Steiner, having seen it praised again and again by various Twitter friends. But, alas.

The mystery involves the disappearance of Edith Hind, a Cambridge grade student. As is usual in a book of this type, she had some secrets that the police must untangle, and that process wreaks havoc on numerous lives, most especially that of her fiance, Will; her best friend, Helena; and her parents, Ian and Miriam. The Hind family is well-known enough that the media takes an interest in the story, which furthers the trouble for everyone. It’s a pretty standard mystery.

Investigating the case is the Cambridgeshire police, and, although we get to know several of the officers involved in the case, the novel focuses on DS Manon Bradshaw. And here’s where I got annoyed with the book. Manon is in her late 30s and single and really unhappy about it. Which is fine. But she read as really immature, almost as if she were a single person as imagined by someone married who assumes that 20-something singleness, with its high emotions, is the same as late-30s singleness, when most women I know have settled into their situations, even if they still date and want to get married. When Manon does meet someone, she has a total personality change, going from standoffish and acerbic to friendly and cheerful. Yes, the first flush of a new relationship can bring some lightness, but this change seemed way too extreme. I found it unpleasant and kind of insulting.

The book is as much about Manon as it is about the mystery, which would be fine (even good!) if I’d not been so frustrated at the way Manon was written. Her professional side was handled really well. I liked that she messed up in understandable ways. In fact, her dating life is used to good effect here because her desire for a personal life causes her to miss an important call, with terrible consequences. I was less impressed that she does the common crime fiction thing of confronting someone dangerous without backup, but it is a common crime fiction thing. Overall, she is good at the job, but in an ordinary way. It felt like a realistic workplace book. If the personal side had been handled as well as the professional side, I’d have liked this more. But, alas.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 4 Comments

Libertie

LibertieThis novel by Kaitlyn Greenidge provides a glimpse into a bit of history that I was entirely unfamiliar with. It begins in Brooklyn at the time of the Civil War, where the title character, Libertie, is being raised by her single mother, medical doctor Catherine Sampson (a character loosely based on Susan McKinney Steward, one of the U.S.’s first Black woman doctors). Dr. Sampson dreams of Libertie someday becoming a doctor herself, so they can work together side by side. To that end, she pushed Libertie to excel, with seemingly little attention to what Libertie herself wants.

The book follows Libertie into her education and marriage, from Brooklyn to Ohio to Haiti. At each step, she learns a little more about the life her mother, with her single-minded focus, shielded her from. And she starts to figure out what she herself wants.

As a reader, I wondered about author Kaitlyn Greenidge’s choice to focus on daughter Libertie, rather than Dr. Sampson, who arguably would have a more obviously significant story. I think by focusing on Libertie, she’s able to tell a story of Black women’s achievement where racism and sexism are present but not quite as central as they might be to the story of Dr. Sampson’s initial barrier-breaking accomplishments. For Libertie, balancing her mother’s expectations with her own desires is as monumental as coping with societal obstacles, perhaps even more so because her mother has, to some extent, cleared a path. I also think it’s important to have Black stories that center relationships, rather than race, so, on the whole, I appreciated Greenidge’s choice here. 

Overall, I liked the book, but I did wish for more. A lot of books I’ve read lately have felt longer than they needed to be, but I think this was shorter than it needed to be. The plot felt quite rushed at times, particularly in the last half of the book. Character motivations were not as clear as I would have liked, with choices seeming to come out of the blue. The reasons for the characters’ actions were explained, but I didn’t feel them. Although I think the mantra “show, don’t tell” is overused in that clear explanations of characters internal lives are not necessarily a narrative flaw, there were points where there was only telling, without much showing. It kept some of the developments from being entirely believable.

I think if a thread or two had been dropped or if the book had been longer, the characters would have had the time to breathe that was required for a book of this scope. I was glad to get a glimpse into this period, but a deeper dive would have been even better.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 4 Comments

Hamnet

HamnetMaggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is, to me, the ideal kind of historical fiction. It fills in the gaps of what we know in a reasonably plausible way. It gives us characters who feel of their time but also not so very distant from us. And it tells a story that I cared about. Granted, it doesn’t have the level of scope and detail of, say, a Dorothy Dunnett novel, but I wouldn’t want all my historical fiction to have that same level of scope and detail. This is a story about a family that happened to live in the past, not a sweeping narrative about important people doing significant things.

Although, of course, Hamnet’s father is an important person. But his place as the preeminent playwright in the English language, the William Shakespeare, is hardly relevant to the plot. Until the final moments of the book, his career is mostly what keeps him from his family, not something anyone in the book talks about or cares about much.

The book begins by telling the story of William’s wooing and eventual wedding to Agnes Hathaway (known to history as Anne) in parallel with the story of the plague hitting the young family, specifically, the youngest daughter Judith, twin sister to Hamnet. O’Farrell reminds us in the historical note that opens the novel that Hamnet died at age 11 and that his father wrote Hamlet four years later. So the shape of the plot is already known to us.

But the plot isn’t what is important to the novel, although here, as is so often the case for me lately, I appreciate that O’Farrell does care about story, not just mood and setting. The important thing about the book is seeing that people of the past experienced tragedy in much the same way we do. It is an obvious truth, to be sure, but I think it’s easy to forget when we just look at numbers and names in a history book, even when those names are familiar to us, that the people did not experience these deaths as history. They were personal, just as the many deaths of our own contemporary pandemic this year are not just current events, they are personal tragedies.

The book also shows with great poignance that people manage tragedy differently. For me, these chapters toward the end of the book are what elevated it beyond just very solid historical fiction. The characters, William and Agnes in particular, but also their daughters Susanna and Judith, share the same grief, but they each carry it in their own way, in ways that the others do not or cannot understand fully. Again, tragedy is a personal process. Yet, it can also be shared, must be shared.

Posted in Food, Historical Fiction | 2 Comments

Love

When I read classic novels, I often find myself having to put myself in the mindset of a different time, reminding myself that attitudes commonly understood to be wrong today were less well understood then. In a lot of cases that means deciding to what degree I’m willing to overlook instances of casual racism or sexism or anti-Semitism around the edges of otherwise excellent books. And sometimes, I come across books where the objectionable elements are closer to the heart of the story. That was, to some degree, the case with Love, by Elizabeth von Arnim. But, based on my limited reading of her work at this point, von Arnim is a the kind of writer (also evidenced in The Caravaners) who doesn’t seem interested in telling readers what to think or even necessarily showing her own hand. And I think that helps keep her books from seeming too altogether out of step with the times, even when the characters are having to grapple with the expectations of their era.

Published in 1925, Love is the story of two couples, both with great age differences. In the case of the main couple, Catherine and Christopher, the woman is considerably older. The secondary couple, Virginia and Stephen, involves a younger woman and an older man. You can guess which is more societally acceptable.

To my eye, both couples get off to a shaky start. Christopher falls head over heels in love with Catherine, having seen her from a distance at multiple performances of the opera The Immortal Hour. Gradually, he comes to sit near her, and eventually he follows her home. Frankly, he becomes, at best, a pest, and at worst, a stalker. He means no actual harm, but it’s unsettling. And Catherine is, at first, unsettled by it, in part because of the age difference (she is in her late 40s and he is in his 20s). but also because, having been a widow for 10 years, she seems to have no particular inclination to marry again.

Throughout their relationship, the age gap is an issue. People are confused when they see them together, making wrong assumptions about their relationship. Catherine does not have the energy of a 20-year-old, and Christopher feels hemmed in at times. The love, I think, is sincere, but it is limited. And I think von Arnim wants us to see the ambiguity of their situation. Any sense that their relationship is a scandal is treated as ridiculous (the fact that Virginia and Stephen’s marriage is considered respectable is noted more than once as a reason to accept Catherine and Christopher). But there is reason to wonder whether this particular couple has any hope of being happy together in the long term.

As a 21st-century reader, I found Virginia and Stephen’s relationship far more upsetting than Catherine and Christopher’s possibly too rash and fleeting courtship. Stephen met Virginia when she was just five years old and he was the 34-year-old curate of the parish and He “had his thoughtful eye on her from the beginning” and proposed when she was 18. Catherine was uneasy but gave her consent to the marriage, and the couple did seem very much in love. Today, of course, this would be perceived as a likely case of grooming, and, although I’m not sure von Arnim would characterize the relationship that way, she leaves readers a lot of reasons to be troubled by it. In particular, Virginia seems fully indoctrinated in Stephen and his mother’s way of doing things. When she does speak up in contradiction to either of them, it feels like a great triumph. And I think we’re meant to notice it, even if we also believe that the couple sincerely love each other in some kind of way.

There’s a lot of talk in the book about different forms of love, and I think that, regardless of what characters say about it, the book tells its own story. That love is powerful and pleasing and something to be cherished, but also powerful and pleasing and something to be cautious of. Regardless of how our understandings of love have changed over time, I think that will always be true.

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Lonesome Dove

Larry McMurtry’s 1985 western is beloved by many readers, as we were reminded in the many stories written about his recent death. It had been on my radar to read for many years, and prior to McMurtry’s death, Dorian’s praise for the book put in on my library holds list. And a week’s staycation gave me time to read it. At more than 800 pages, it requires some time, but it also reads pretty quickly, once it gets going.

The novel follows a pair of former Texas rangers, Gus and Coll, as they lead a team of cowboys on a journey to take a massive herd of cattle north from Texas to Montana, where, they’ve been told by a fellow former ranger, they will find a beautiful, untouched country to make a fortune as ranchers. It’s a long journey, fraught with physical peril, but the personal drama is perhaps even more gripping and painful.

It’s tempting to read this as a tribute to the hardy souls who “settled” the American West, but I think McMurtry is up to something far more interesting and ambiguous. For one thing, there is the constant presence of Indians. I had a lot of misgivings about this, particularly because McMurtry does not give any of the Indian characters an inner life, and the only one that gets a name is among the most brutal characters in the book. But, particularly toward the end of the book, the Indian presence is a constant reminder that these lands were already settled, and the white presence there could be seen as both foolhardy and destructive. One group of Indians we meet is devastated by poverty, and there are numerous mentions of the declining numbers of buffalo.

That is, perhaps, me reading into the text what I want to see, but a lot of the story points in the direction of the settling of these supposedly untouched lands being a fool’s quest. Lots of characters don’t want to go, and those who die along the way often have random and meaningless ends. Plus, there’s a lot of talk about whether and why they should keep going — for some, it’s almost a compulsion, and not really a healthy one.

That’s not to say that there isn’t heroism, but the heroism is not about settling land, it’s about people taking care of each other. Maybe that means making a daring rescue, or keeping a friend from falling off his horse when he goes to sleep, or giving some young cowboys some extra cash on their first trip to down. A lot of what I liked about this book was in the ways characters looked out for each other.

And, ultimately, it is the characters the make this book. The novel has a large cast, and although I couldn’t consistently keep all the minor characters straight, that’s only because there were so many of them to remember. Each person is individualized, and most are given inner lives and moments to shine. Given the setting, I was impressed at the variety among the small number of women characters. There are some wonderful comic moments that exist side by side with moments of great agony. The full gamut of feeling. All of which make this a great read.

Posted in Fiction | 10 Comments

The Witch’s Heart

I know very little about Norse mythology. In fact, to an embarrassing degree what I do know comes as much from Marvel movies as anything else. But that gave me enough to know that a witch in a long relationship with Loki would probably have an eventful life.

Angrboda, the witch in question, is the main character of Genevieve Gornichec’s novel inspired by Norse mythology. Angrboda is mentioned in the Norse Eddas and, based on my small amount of reading, Gornichec is building on the little bits of presented available about her as the mate of Loki and mother of monsters.

As the book begins, Angrboda has just come back from the dead at the hands of the Aesir (i.e., Odin and the o,ther gods). She retreats to a cave in the forest where she eventually encounters Loki, who comes and goes, much to the annoyance of Skadi, a huntress who loves Angrboda and takes care of her when her husband will not or cannot. As Angrboda raises her three unusual children, she finds that her connection with Loki and his place as Odin’s blood-brother makes a quiet life, safe from the Aesir, impossible. And then there are the prophetic dreams.

The middle section of the book puts Angrboda in a state of dreamlike wandering, with Ragnarock always on the horizon. The section was perhaps the least easy to enjoy, but, on reflection, it was effective at showing the passing of time and the general weirdness of Angrboda’s situation. And there is a lot of weirdness in this book, as is appropriate for a book inspired by Norse myth. This is a story where a guy gives birth to an eight-legged horse and everyone just pretty much shrugs.

Not being familiar with these stories, I had a good time seeing how they unfolded, and I’ve enjoyed looking up some of the characters to see where the author got her inspiration. I’d recommend this book to people who enjoyed Madeline Millar’s Circe and similar retellings of myths. This seemed like a much loopier story to me, but I think that could be because the stories it’s based on were new to me. I’ve heard about Circe enough that the weirdness feels pretty ordinary. Not so here.

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Mexican Gothic

I was recently chatting with a friend about how I was bored with books that are all atmosphere and pretty writing, without much actual story. (This was in relation to a book I gave up on that had the premise of a thriller but mostly involved people going on walks and thinking about things in evocative prose.) So it’s a good time for me to read Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a book that is pretty much exactly what it claims to be.

The book’s main character, Noemí Taboada, is a 1950s socialite who loves parties and flirting but dreams of becoming an anthropologist, even though her father sees little value in giving her that advanced education. But he agrees to do so if she will just go and check in on her cousin Catalina. Catalina has recently (and suddenly) married a man from a wealthy English family that built a house in the Mexican countryside and built a fortune mining silver on the property. Noemí’s father has become worried because Catalina sent a strange letter asking for help. Perhaps Noemí can figure out what’s going on.

From here, we get exactly what you’d expect. A creepy old house, a family with strict rules to follow, a mysterious illness, hints of bigger secrets. It’s all enjoyably creepy. And Moreno-Garcia does a nice job planting all the clues to what is really going on without giving away the whole story too quickly. It’s the kind of thing where when the big revelations start to happen, I would think, “Oh, I knew it had something to do with _____, but I wasn’t sure what.” or “I thought ____ must be behind this, but I didn’t know how.” That, to me, is a sign the author is playing fair without being obvious.

So, on the whole, I found this a pretty fun story. I wasn’t quite sure at the end how some of the history/mythology/magic/whatever really worked, but that could be because I was caught up enough in the suspense of the moment that I was reading quickly and missed a couple of crucial details along the way.

The main thing that kept this from being a great, great book was that I found Noemí kind of a dull heroine. She’s got all the right qualities on paper — spunkiness, intelligence, free-spiritedness, etc. — but it all ended up making her feel rather generic. Her interest in anthropology could have set her apart, but it didn’t really lead anywhere much (when it could have been crucial to the plot). The more interesting characters are from the family Catalina has married into, because they have more internal conflict. And it’s kind of a shame that the white characters are the more intriguing ones. But I suppose in Gothic fiction, the villains are often more exciting.

Anyway, it’s a solid Gothic/sensation novel pastiche. I really like the approach of taking that type of story and bringing it into new settings and cultures. Although I know Mexico has its own literary traditions that are worth delving into and building on, it’s fun to see new takes on the literary forms and traditions that I already know and love.

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X

In this autobiography (as told to Alex Haley), Malcolm X says “My whole life had been a chronology of changes.” Yet, too often, he, like so many historical figures, gets frozen in amber, depicted in a single moment in time, when, in reality, people’s ideas evolve over time, and no one moment is likely to be representative of the whole.

That is certainly true of Malcolm X, and well-captured in his autobiography, which was published in 1965, months after his assassination. He goes from shining shoes in clubs to dealing drugs on the streets to finding Allah in prison. And then he becomes a powerful spokesman for the rights of Black Americans. That part is well known. But I think a lot of people, especially white Americans, don’t realize just how much his views about race also evolved.

So often, Malcolm X is presented as the violent counterpoint to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The latter preached love and unity, while the former preached hate and separation. But most who are familiar with the full story know that when Malcolm X went on pilgrimage to Mecca, he was transformed, almost as thoroughly as he was in his prison conversion to Islam. It’s not that he ceases having sharp words for American whites or being willing to respond to violence with violence. He just recognizes that whites are not, by definition, the devil, and some are indeed willing to support Black people’s fight for their rights.

I realize that all this makes it sound like, as I white lady, I came to like Malcolm X only because he stopped preaching hate toward white people. The truth is, that probably does enter into my feelings about him. But I also liked him all along for his curiosity and discipline and willingness to throw himself into whatever he was doing. The chapter where he starts reading in prison is riveting — he’s so alive with curiosity! His passion makes him seem like an intense person to know, but also someone worth at least knowing about.

But it’s in the latter half of the book, where the beliefs he’s built his life on start to fall apart, that he becomes a truly remarkable person. His crisis of conscience when he realizes that Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, was not the man Malcolm thought he was rings true to anyone who has been disappointed by a once-respected leader. Yet, here again, Malcolm’s curiosity and discipline see him through and take him to Mecca for the Hajj, where he is able to see people of different races interact peacefully and lovingly. And it is his willingness to respond to new information that really impressed me.

In the book, he says:

Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.

What important words!

Haley structured the book so that we experience Malcolm’s evolutions in thinking right along with him. In the chapters where he is committed to Elijah Muhammed, we read only words of respect and admiration, with only the slightest hints that it won’t last. In the epilogue, Haley explains that he had to convince Malcolm that this was the right approach, and I think it was. It allows us to see how thoroughly he was changed when we’re right there with him.

Yes, he continued having sharp words about America and the systemic racism that endures in our country, but time has shown how much he got right. He even condemns the use of the term “reverse racism” at one point. I had no idea that phrase had been in existence for so long! He also got right how he would, sadly, be remembered by too many:

He [the white man] will make use of me dead, as he has made use of me alive, as a convenient symbol of “hatred” — and that will help him to escape facing the truth that all I have been doing is holding up a mirror to reflect, to show, the history of unspeakable crimes that his race has committed against my race.

Posted in Biography, Nonfiction | 10 Comments

The Kindest Lie

This debut novel by Nancy Johnson is a thoughtful exploration of issues related to race and class in the early Obama years, but it’s also pretty frustrating and ultimately not especially rewarding. 

The book’s main character, Ruth Tuttle, is a Black woman who left her small Indiana town to attend Yale and eventually became a successful engineer (although she’s currently questioning whether she’ll ever advance as much as she deserves). She and her husband are talking about having a baby when Ruth realizes she can no longer ignore a secret she’s kept for years — that she had a child while still in high school and that the baby boy was adopted. Ruth returns to her hometown to see what she can learn about her son’s fate.

Meanwhile, an 11-year-old white boy who goes by Midnight is trying to understand his own future. His father has lost his job, so Midnight lives with his grandmother, but there’s talk of a move to Louisiana. It all has left Midnight bewildered and confused.

The book mostly focuses on Ruth, with occasional chapters showing Midnight’s perspective. These Midnight chapters tended to put the brakes on the narrative because, as intrigued as I was by the idea of presenting a poor white kid’s perspective on the economic downtown, the connection to Ruth’s story seemed weak. But by the time the connection became more clear, I was frustrated with Ruth’s storyline as well.

Ruth herself seemed unrealistically obtuse a lot of the time. Her desire to learn what happened to her son was completely understandable, but she never once seemed to imagine the next steps and focused only on what it would mean for her. It felt like this drive was more necessary for the story than any realistic motivation. 

And that was the case for a lot of the characters’ motivations in the end. The book started out seeming like an interesting exploration of choices and regret and family and community pressures (reminding me a bit of Britt Bennett’s The Mothers), but it ultimately seemed constructed to create conversation rather than to tell a story, with the characters and plot points there to check certain issue-related boxes rather than to be actual living breathing people.

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